You arrive at the church. You’re nervous, because you know what comes next. You walk into the church and kneel in one of the pews. You begin to pray. What do you pray for? You pray God gets you through the whole painful process. Then you begin to examine your conscience. You try and remember what sins you have committed. In the car on the way over you couldn’t stop thinking of all the sins you committed. Now, however, you’re drawing a blank. You remember a few of the sins, but outside of that, you can’t seem to recall any. You pray some more. Then you get in line. When your turn comes you take a deep breath, and enter the confessional. Coming out, you feel refreshed; like a new creation. In some way, you are!
If you’re Catholic, you probably know what I’m talking about. It isn’t easy going to confession. It can be very humbling going into a little room, and confessing your sins to another man. Here a non-Catholic may ask, “Why do you go to confession? Why confess your sins to another man? Can’t you just go right to God to obtain forgiveness of your sins?”
Probably the most common passage quoted to defend confession (which is only one element of the Sacrament of Reconciliation/Penance) is John 20:23. Here Jesus tells His Apostles, “What sins you shall, they are forgiven. What sins you shall retain, they are retained.”
There are other defenses, however, that can be made to defend Reconciliation. In this post we won’t only defend the actual act of confessing our sins to a priest. We will try and give a more comprehensive view of Reconciliation.
Jesus told His Apostles that whatever sins they forgive are forgiven; and whatever sins they retain (refuse to forgive) are retained. What does this mean? This means that the Apostles and their confessors have the authority to forgive sins. Yet, they can’t just grant everyone forgiveness. The priest must know exactly what sins he is forgiving. Confessing one sins help both the priest and the penitent. For one, when you know you have to confess your sins you have to think about your sins. You have to know what sins you have committed, and how many times you committed each sin (if this is possible). If the exact number times a sin was committed can’t be determined it will suffice to simply have an idea of the frequency.
When you go in to confess your sins, the priest will become aware of your shortcomings. If you frequently go to the same priest, this gives you the added benefit of receiving the advice of a priest who knows you. He knows your shortcomings and your tendencies. He will have an idea of why you keep falling into the same sins. The priest can then give you advice on how to avoid these sins in the future.
Since Jesus works through the priest to forgive sins, the priest will sometimes know if you are truly sorry for your sins, or not. There is no guarantee that the priest will know if you are contrite. Finding a priest to regularly confess to will help with this. But sometimes a priest who is un familiar with you can still tell if you are truly sorry for your sins, or not. In any case, to obtain forgiveness for sins, one must be sorry for his sins, and have a firm purpose not to sin again. If this contrition isn’t present, the words of absolution mean nothing. Sorrow for sins and a firm purpose not to sin again must always be present.
Furthermore, every sin has a consequence. For example, if I steal something from my employer and I confess it to a priest (or simply to God at the end of the day), I may be sorry for it; but that is not enough. It certainly is good that I am sorry for stealing, and the stain of guilt may be wiped from my soul. The fact remains, however, that I stole something. Being sorry for it does not return the object. In other words, the stain of consequence remains, though the stain of guilt is gone. I must do something to repair the damage done by my sin. I must either return the object, or in some way make recompense for it.
After confessing your sins and listening to the priests advice, the priest (representing Jesus) gives you a penance to perform. Since the priest is acting in persona Christi during Reconciliation, one must perform the penance given. To refuse is a mortal sin. The act of confessing and receiving absolution wipes away the stain of guilt. Performing a penance wipes away the “stain of consequence”, as I like to call it.
Now there are quite a few biblical passages I could refer to here to prove that confessing one’s sins to a priest is thoroughly biblical. Yet, I think only referring to one should suffice. I don’t mean for this post to be an exhaustive examination.
I think the most interesting biblical evidence for confession doesn’t come from John 20:23, but Genesis 3. Most people don’t think of Genesis when they think of confession, but confession can be found there. After Adam and Eve eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God goes to pay them a visit. God calls Adam and Adam says, “I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” (Gn. 3:10)
Here God gives Adam a chance to confess his guilt. God asks Adam if he has eaten of the tree which God had forbidden him to eat from. Does Adam take this chance to make the first good confession? Well, he does make the first confession, but it isn’t a good one. Instead of admitting that he was weak, and he used his own free will to disobey God, Adam adds a but. Adam’s answer amounts to saying, “Yes, God, I ate of the forbidden tree; but it wasn’t my fault. I was tricked by that bad woman, Eve!” (Gn. 3:12)
Now Eve has the chance to make the first good confession. She makes the second confession in human history, but again, it wasn’t a good one! God asks Eve what she has done. Eve has the chance to admit she used her own free will to transgress the command of God. But Eve essentially says, “Yes, God, I ate of the forbidden tree; but that evil serpent tricked me into it!”
When speaking of the Sacrament of Marriage, Jesus repudiated divorce by saying, “It was not so from the beginning.” (Mt. 19:8) From the beginning, God intended man and woman-once legitimately united in marriage-must remain married until death. From the beginning, God intended man to confess his sins. So let us not avoid the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It isn’t something to be scared of, or to avoid. Let us approach this merciful sacrament frequently, and with joy in our hearts. Our God is not a wrathful God. He is a God of love and mercy. Let us repent of our sins. The kingdom of God is at hand!
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity